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Democratic Satire. The Tale of Ruff Ruffson


In the seventeenth century a whole category of works arose that were independent of official literature and became known as “democratic satire” (The Tale of Ruff Ruffson, The Tale of Savva the Priest, The Kalyazin Petition, The ABC of a Poor and Naked Man, The Tale of Foma and Erema, The Tavern Service, The Tale of the Cock and the Fox, The Tale of the Good Life and Merrymaking and others).43 They were written both in prose, often rhythmical prose, and rayeshnik verse. They are closely linked with folklore in respect to both artistic features and mode of existence. The works that constitute democratic satire are for the most part anonymous. Their texts are fluid and have many versions. Their subjects are generally known both in written works and in the oral tradition.

The Tale of Ruff Ruffson. Democratic satire is full of the spirit of social protest. Many of its works openly denounce feudal customs and the church. The Tale of Ruff Ruffson, which appeared in the early decades of the seventeenth century (in the first redaction the action takes place in 1596), is about a lawsuit brought by Bream and Chub against Ruff. Bream and Chub “who dwell in the Rostov lake” bring a suit against “Ruff Ruffson, thief, brigand and trickster … a wicked, unkind man”. Ruff asked them to let him into the Rostov lake “to live and find something to eat there for a little while”. The simple-hearted Bream and Chub believe Ruff and let him into the lake, but once there he multiplies and “takes over the lake by force”. The story continues in the form of a parody on the legal proceedings by relating the mean tricks and base actions of Ruff, an “inveterate cheat” and “notorious thief”. Eventually the judges decide that Bream and Chub are right and hand Ruff off to them. But here too Ruff manages to escape punishment: “he turned his tail towards Bream, and said: ‘If they have given you my head, then you, Bream, and your friend, swallow me from my tail.’ Seeing Ruffs cunning, Bream thought to swallow him from the head, but his head was bony and his tail covered with spikes, like sharp bear-spears or arrows, so he could not be swallowed at all. And they let Ruff go free.”

Bream and Chub refer to themselves as “peasants”, but Ruff, it transpires at the trial, is from “the minor nobility who are nicknamed Vandyshevs” (vandyshi is a collective name for very small fish). In the second half of the sixteenth century, i.e., the period when the landed estates gradually became hereditary holdings, the landowners gained far more power over the peasants and often abused it. This sort of situation, in which a nobleman took land from the peasants by trickery and force, is reflected in The Tale of Ruff Ruffson. Here, too, is a reflection of the complete impunity with which landowners broke the law, not even fearing a court sentence.